JERUSALEM — The Israeli cabinet last week approved a $161 million plan to build an architecturally exuberant new residence and office for the country's prime minister that will take at least two years to complete. Two days later, Israelis went to the polls and effectively ensured that their next premier will never get a chance to live in it.
Most likely Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu will get to move up the hill from his apartment on Gaza Street to the Prime Minister's residence he occupied from 1996 to 1999. Not because he won the election. He didn't. He just has the best chance of putting together a coalition of tiny right-of-center and religious parties — who'll bring him down long before the supposed four-year term of the new Knesset is up.
Netanyahu's probable return gets foreign correspondents in a froth, because in their glib terminology he's an "extremist." In fact, he's rather pragmatic, but the same label can easily be tacked onto the party that will be central to his coalition. Yisrael Beitenu would like to swap some of Israel's Arab towns for Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Many seem to have missed the fact that this is a commitment to a two-state solution (which Israeli right-wingers usually refuse to countenance). Israeli leftists and foreign observers have dubbed the party leader Avigdor Lieberman an extremist.
Israelis, who after all voted for so-called right-wing parties by a considerable majority, are more sanguine about "Bibi," the childhood nickname by which Netanyahu is known, and his likely partners. They weren't impressed with him as Prime Minister the first time around, but the other option for the top job at last week's election was Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, whose main qualifications were that she isn't corrupt and that she isn't Bibi. It wasn't quite enough.
But it was sufficient to spoil Netanyahu's plan, which had seemed to be going smoothly until a month before the elections when he had a lead over Livni's Kadima Party of 10 seats. He was on the road to a centrist coalition as the head of the biggest party in the Knesset. Then Livni, as a senior minister basking in the afterglow of a — to Israelis at least — successful pounding of Hamas in Gaza, overhauled Netanyahu to beat him by one seat.
Still he'll get first crack at forming a government, because Israeli voters showed themselves to be overwhelmingly right-wing or nationalistic. In fact, even many of Israel's left-wingers voted for rather right-wing candidates. Livni, a relatively dovish character, sits atop a Kadima Party list filled with refugees from Likud. Many of them profess very right-wing positions, but were opportunistic enough to have jumped on the Kadima bandwagon when it was riding high under its first leader, Ariel Sharon.
Livni robbed Labor and the other "leftist" parties of many of their natural supporters, in spite of the right-wingers in her stable. That's either because those voters really hate Bibi, or they're disgusted with the disastrously ineffectual parties that purport to represent them.
Actually, it's both.
A column in Yediot Aharanoth, Israel's biggest daily, last week blamed Labor for the destruction of the left-wing that ended with many instinctive leftists voting for a right of center party. Labor's addiction to the comforts of power, wrote Dror Nissan, led to its joining nationalist coalitions over the last two decades, instead of articulating an alternative future for the country from the opposition benches. The party suffered from "a lack of shame," he wrote.
Proof of that came last week when, despite a catastrophic result for Labor (only 13 seats), leader Ehud Barak had to be forced by party insiders to state that he wouldn't join a Netanyahu coalition to retain his job as Defense Minister.
Netanyahu maintains he has changed since his first wishy-washy stab at being Prime Minister. On the night of his defeat by Barak in the 1999 election, he ordered up barbecue to his suite at the Tel Aviv Hilton and cheerfully handed out cigars as long as your arm to visitors. It was the action of a man relieved to be done with a bad job. The last thing he wants is to suffer through a coalition as fragile as the one he failed to maintain back then.
He has spent the last decade cozying up on the black leather couches in his office with journalists who are force-fed cigars and his musings about Kant. He's also — by his account — saved the Israeli economy from disaster during his years as Finance Minister.
Livni claims to be unimpressed. In the finest tradition of coalition horse-trading, she hinted Sunday that she wouldn't join a Netanyahu cabinet, preferring to force Bibi to turn to the right, where he'd be tarnished by association with wild-eyed ideologues.
Like all good bluffers, Livni isn't afraid to be called. Top people in her party tell her a right-wing Netanyahu coalition will make her look like a more appealing alternative at the next election.
Unless he gets Kadima into his coalition (alongside Lieberman, for a majority of 70 in the 120-seat Knesset), Netanyahu will be prey to religious parties, who'll hold him to ransom whenever he tries to put through one of his cherished financial reforms, and nationalists who'll threaten to bring him down each time he attempts to placate Washington with the evacuation of a few settlers from a rocky hilltop in the West Bank.
The new Prime Minister's residence is currently just such a rocky hilltop, although it's across the street from Livni's office in the Foreign Ministry. A massive complex where 750 people will work, from architectural models of the project it can best be described as looking like a massive space-age brazier.
Based on the previous work of its designer, the architecture critic of the Ha'aretz newspaper Esther Zandberg last week predicted the building would be an impractical nightmare for those living and working in it.
It's only a shame the building isn't yet ready. It'd provide an appropriate home for the indecisive mess that emerged from Israel's ballot boxes last week.